by Terry Camsey, Major –
If you went to a party where nobody there knew anyone else, after a while you would see an interesting thing happen—people would gradually start to cluster together in groups that had found some common ground or comfortability with each other. It’s human nature that, couched in avian metaphor, says, “birds of a feather flock together!”
There is a strange, seeming paradox, here for those who would evangelize in order to win whole communities. While the ultimate goal is to have people accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, note the importance of that phrase, “in Christ.” The reality is that people of differing ethnicity, language, social class, etc. are more likely to accept each other as relatives in the family of God after they accept Christ, than before.
Booth discerned this Church Growth principle early in his ministry. Did he intend to start a new church? Probably not, since his initial goal seems to have been to get people saved and then link them up with the local church. What did he learn? Two things.
Firstly, that the people he sent to church were neither wanted, nor accepted, by the congregation. Secondly, that—as a result—the people he sent were not comfortable with the congregation. Yet, think about it. The people he sent were city people, white, and spoke the same language as the congregations he sent them to. Surely they would be accepted!
What he found was that his people and the church congregations were different. Those congregations were probably a better-washed white, wore more expensive clothing, and spoke a different version of the same language. Did he try to force the issue? Not for long. He realized that his ministry would be more effective if he started a church where his people would be comfortable…and others of his initial primary target groups (the poor of London) also. The result of that brilliant insight we have read about and, compared to the moribund traditional church of the day, was spectacular.
The principle? People prefer to become Christian without having to cross linguistic, ethnic, or language, etc. barriers. When they are Christian and learn about the diversity of God’s family to which they now belong, such barriers melt away. This, in turn, suggests that an acceptance of this reality is, “a spiritual and effective way of beginning and moving a group of people toward a heterogeneous scriptural ideal.” (Gerald Palmer, Southern Baptist Home Mission Board)
The astute, however, can discern the “glue” that holds people together, which may not have to do with geographic origin, or language, or social standing, etc. Generations can be totally different to each other…an American of the seniors’ generation (born before 1946) is vastly different to an American of the Boomer or Buster generations. Sure, they may speak based on a common language, but the vernacular is totally different. (Someone has suggested there are at last five versions of the English language spoken in America today!) Dress is totally different. Values are different. Music tastes are different. In fact, to reach and keep younger generations (something we are not good at!) an older congregation is going to have to get involved in cross–cultural ministry.
There are congregations in Los Angeles where people from many nations worship together. The “glue” that holds them together is frequently that of being new immigrants and going through the same challenges of settling in an alien culture. Fortunately, they have found congregations prepared to accept them as they are and to work to help them become assimilated both in the community and God’s family.
C. Peter Wagner has suggested that if we are trying to reach those who are separated from our culture by at least two steps (language, lifestyle, ethnicity, etc.) they will only be reached by cross-cultural methods.
Is it possible that, over the years, the Army itself has become a somewhat exclusive culture…several steps removed from the people we strive to reach…having developed our own language, dress, music preferences, etc? If so, are we prepared to undertake the cross-cultural work necessary to bridge the generational gap?